By Anna Husted
The story of violence in America is unpleasant, and director S. Craig Zahler tells it as brutally as possible in the 2017 film “Brawl in Cell Block 99.”
Zahler’s second directorial feature plays out like a gory one-man circus about a good-intentioned man, Bradley Thomas (played by an aggressive, but reserved Vince Vaughn), who just wants to do right by his family.
After losing his job, Thomas resumes running drugs to support his newly pregnant girlfriend. A drug exchange gone wrong lands him in jail and in the bad graces of a drug lord. To pay for the lost merchandise he has to get to cell block 99 in Redleaf Correctional Facility to take care of a cartel “issue,” but everything is not as it seems.
Justice and credo play out with all-American cross-wielding violence in “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” first to the viewer’s satisfaction and then to his or her chagrin. Much like Zahler’s debut film, “Bone Tomahawk,” in which an unsuspecting sheriff (played by Kurt Russell) seeks to protect his townspeople from a rogue band of American Indians; so do the characters in “Brawl in Cell Block 99” dole out their substantiated, but over-the-top revenge.
With gun violence on many people’s minds and domestic terrorism as prevalent now as it was in the Old West, Zahler’s films are an important part of the conversation around violence and American masculinity.
It sheds light on a kind of masculinity that can only be expressed through flexing bigger muscles than the next guy, and shelling out non-restorative violent revenge in an ever-changing America.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” needs to be seen because it addresses the greater issue of the American white male’s place in a society where defending one’s family against the non-white “other” is more important than the acceptance of all creeds. This may seem like a disparaging perception of Zahler’s work, but his films also illuminate the problem of white fear in an ever-diversifying America.
Zahler’s work is highlighting the sentiments of Americans who feel that neighborhoods and jobs are being taken by the non-white other. It’s important to watch Zahler’s work to the very end to fully grasp the film’s place in American and film history.
Zahler is a progressive, risk-taking director who still has much to say about violence in America. Gory, thrilling, curb-stomping “Brawl in Cell Block 99” not only provides a glimpse into prison violence, but reminds us where white male violence belongs in the American story-back in the circus tent.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” is available on Amazon Prime Video and Netflix DVD.
Anna Husted has a master’s degree in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found behind the bar at Lone Peak Cinema or slinging hot dogs at Yeti Dogs. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s skiing, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.